She wakes at dawn. She pads into the still dark field and bowing low, stretches sleep away. The grass is cool and sharp under her feet. She looks back – wherever she is, she loves looking back – and there is the house behind her, a rectangle of adobe, doors and windows trimmed with green, and the immense grandfather elm spreading shade over it all. Though she cannot see them, she can hear the elm beetles already at work. All morning, all evening, they click in the branches and fall out of the sky, brown dots that suddenly appear on the ground and your skin.
She sees the old man standing on the porch, facing east. From the back, he looks as young as he was when they first met, straight-backed with thick black hair that refuses to turn white.
She comes up softly but the old man has heard her and turns. And then he is unmistakably old, his face lined with arroyos and his eyes dark and moist like raisins in water.
Hola hermana, he says, cómo amaneciste?
They have known each other for so long they do not speak anymore except for these rituals of Morning, did you sleep well? and Night, may you sleep well.
They stand on the porch till the grey sky lightens into blue, till the sun rises over the hills, hits a green cholla, so the spines gleam like swords and then slants over one side of the valley. A sheen of gold spreads over brown scrubland, the junipers burn bright, the rocks edging the mesas shine dark and lustrous.
As she goes into the kitchen, she hears the thud behind her of the old man sitting down on his rocking chair. He will stay outside all day watching the light shift, the rabbits running from their burrows, the blue jays darting through juniper, and cursing under his breath at the gunshots in the distance. Always some idiots with guns. Pendejos.
Que guapa, says Rosamaria as she enters the kitchen and nods her in. You look like you had a long night, mi hermana, were you dreaming of your old boyfriends? Rosamaria has stood by the wooden stove all these years, every morning, making tortillas of blue corn, clicking softly under her tongue to see how well the dough listens to her fingers, swiftly patting it out into thin circles, placing them on the stove, turning them deftly till they rise, and then whisking them into a basket and covering them with a cloth.
Come eat, Rosamaria says, holding out a tortilla. The light of a single bulb illuminates the edge of her long skirt – a red flower shines, as if rising from night.
She takes the tortilla and eats it slowly, looking at one bulb above that creates as many shadows as light. The shapes of skillets hanging over the wooden stove sway gently. The floorboards creak with age, memory and water that seeps in during the summer rains. The long rectangular wooden table is empty save for one plate that the old man will not touch till the evening.
The stove crackles with piñon and juniper and fills the kitchen with an acrid smell that is as much part of morning as the sun. The heat rises to greet her, and so do memories of the days when she was not so old, when the kitchen was full of the men with whom she worked, men like Carlos and Alonzo and Rogelio.
When she would enter, they would be sitting there, still half-asleep, tortilla in one hand, coffee mug in another. But after the second cup and the sixth tortilla, the stories they told – like that crazy bull who jumped a fence and got loose. They chased him but he was far gone, across the river, across the town, clear on through to el pueblo viejo, where the old timers used to live, el pueblo fantasmo where the old timers died, and from there, they brought him back – only to find that the cows from Ramon’s ranch had followed. Then they had to turn right around and take the cows to Ramon. Qué locura.
The way Carlos would tell it, the rattlesnakes were descending from every hill towards the arroyo and towards him.
The way he saw it, he would kill every last one of them.
Oye, he would say amid all the laughter, it’s them or me. If you don’t get them, they get you. If you don’t kill the small one you see now, you’ll meet a big one, an hour later that’ll get you. Don’t tell me déjalos; I tell you, te siguen. They follow you.
He kept souvenirs in his beat-up truck of every rattle he’d ever met, strung together on the dashboard and when he drove, the truck rattled, the rattles rattled and like this, he arrived and left.
Carlos used to tease her. Ven aquí, he would say and shake a rattle in her ear, así se bailan, how they dance. She didn’t like that music and would run straight down the path to the creek, to the coolness of running water and the shade of a Russian olive. There she would stay till her heart had stopped beating.
Those were the old days. Now her left leg hurts, her eyes are no longer keen and the warmth of the wooden stove is hers and Rosmaria’s alone.
The old man barely eats anymore. All day, he sits on that porch. Some afternoons, he rises and stares at the bull in the corral. The bull stares back. It is a massive black Brahma. In the afternoons, as heat spreads across the valley, it fumes and paws the ground. It is as old as the man and as harmless, but for a while the heat gives it menace and it too remembers how it used to be, how the men would circle it warily, making the sign of the cross rapidly on their chests, and how no one would even think of coming close till the evening when it was cooler.
That afternoon, she sits in the kitchen with Rosamaria’s daughter who is home from college and comes to the house to help her mother finish cleaning so she can leave early. The daughter is small, dark, and steps lightly around the room, dancing out quick rhythms with her feet and making circles and flowers with her wrists.
The old man comes in for a glass of water, takes one look at the girl and is done in. No one else notices – but she notices, she knows the old man too well.
The old man says, hello, how you are you? How is college? Rosamaria says her daughter is studying business management but what she also does is dance. Flamenco! Just a few classes, mama, says the girl, I’ve only taken like four. Flamenco! says Rosamaria, undeterred, and whirls the flowers of her skirt around. Olé!
The girl has the lure of those who have not yet found their fire but are so close to it. It makes men think they are the light and the way. But they are signposts, barely lit.
The old man goes out into the field and begins to sing. He starts with ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ goes on to ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,’ and ends with ‘El Rey’, which he belts out, standing in the center of the valley. Rosamaria and the girl laugh. The neighbors who hear him grin. El cantante del valle, they say. And also, vuelve mas loco cada día. But he is in love.
In the evening, he forgets her. Looking at the sunset, he forgets everything.
The two of them stand and watch. The sun moves over the hill, illuminates the scarlet cholla flowers so they glow, gilds the dark mesa, diffuses into strands of deep pink and then dissolves.
Así es, says the old man, like this I want to go, over the hills in a burst of color.
They both bow and stretch low and once again the day ends as it begins, with the smell of earth and the bristle of grass against her nose.
The boy is eight and doesn’t speak unless spoken to. He sits in a room watching his grandfather die.
When they would visit the old man, his mother would chafe and nudge, urging him to ‘Say something to your grandpa,’ but the old man would shush her. Too much noise in the world already, he would say, wagging a knuckle towards the boy; it is good to watch and listen.
They usually ate eggs and tortillas every visit.
Eggs every day, papa? The daughter was only thirty but motherhood had already made a matron out of her.
Eggs every day, hija, the old man would say. She knew better than to ask again.
As he sits in that room, the boy wonders if he should be muttering prayers like his mother and aunts who are gathered around the enormous white bed in which lies the gaunt body of the old man, the chest barely rising and falling. The boy imagines a dry leaf carried by a slow current down to a place where the tamarisk grows tall and disappears into gloom.
He should not be in the room but he has slipped in quietly and sits in a dark corner.
At the foot of the bed, watching intently is the small sheep dog. Her coat is run with grey, her pointed ears pointed forward, intent on the old man. She is breathing slowly as if in rhythm with the body on the bed.
The last breath.
Madre de Dios, says the daughter. The aunts begin clicking their rosaries faster.
The old man passes on at the second Holy Mary, right at ‘Pray for us, sinners now.’
The whole room becomes one long wail and then shifts into sobs of different cadences.
The boy and the dog watch without crying.
The boy’s silence alerts his mother. She turns, gasps to see him, begins to scold then relents and clasps him to her chest. She is imaging his lament should she pass.
After a while, the boy wriggles free and goes to the dog. He puts his hand on the dog’s back; the dog turns and fixes her clear black eyes on him.
The mother notices the gesture and breaks into fresh sobs.
Finally, she is thinking of her father. If that dog could talk, she says.
The aunts murmur and they all start clicking the rosaries again.
She did speak, says the boy, she spoke and I listened…
His mother is so surprised at his voice that she loses count on the rosary and has to start all over again.
The boy is ten and is watching the dog walk through the gates of the old ranch. The dog walks slowly, as if for the last time. She is remembering the old man, she must, look how she walks as if she remembers, as if her feet remember, her nose remembers. Her coat is full of grey and white, her gait deliberate, stopping now and then to let her left leg rest. The old bull comes to the edge of its pen to greet her. She rests her nuzzle on the gate of the pen, and then continues on, past the adobe house to the open field. Slowly, as if praying, she stretches, her nose low to the grass.
The boy starts to cry and turns his face his way so his mother will not see. But she has already walked past him, her hand clutching the list of items to be auctioned.
The boy cries silently. He feels a certain tightening in his gut.
Later, he will come to recognise it. Later, it will seep into his dreams and wake him. Then he will rise, his stomach tight, and open a notebook. And when the dog arrives, he will write the dawn.
Shebana Coelho is a writer and director, originally from India, now living in New Mexico. She received a Fiction Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Fulbright grant to Mongolia. Her poems, stories and articles have appeared in Chronogram, Word Riot, Vela, Al Jazeera America, Madcap Review, Best Women's Travel Writing, vol. 10, and NPR's On Being blog, among others. Visit her website at www.shebanacoelho.com